Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 39
“This is magic we are talking about, after all, and not hydraulics.”
Chigozie and the Merciful left their hill the same day, in case Naares Stoach decided to bring his riders back early. There was no vote about what they should do, and very little discussion.
Shortly after the riders left, Kort asked Chigozie, “where shall we go?”
“North of us are the plains of the Free Horse People,” Chigozie said. “East lies Cahokia, which in better days might be a place of refuge.” Left unsaid: but in these days, the Heron King and his minions, your former brethren, devastate that land.
“South of us is the City of White Towers, Etzanoa,” Kort rumbled. “They’ve made their intentions toward us clear.”
The Merciful within earshot all nodded and made braying, mewing, growling, or hissing sounds of agreement. They spent the morning and early afternoon gathering everything they could from the castle of the former Baron McClane and bundling it within furs and blankets. Each Merciful beastwife or beastman shouldering a bundle, they turned and trudged west.
Chigozie regretted leaving behind the buildings, even ruined as they were, as well as most of the furniture.
The beastkind weren’t impervious to the cold, but they resisted the stinging northern blasts better than Chigozie did. His clothing had torn in climbing through brambles and on sharp rocks, it had frozen and snapped, and it had worn to threads rubbing on the ground, or on the wooden boards on which Chigozie slept. He had replaced it with a pair of wool trousers from the Baron’s castle, supplemented with furs wrapped around his legs and held in place with leather strips. He wrapped a wool match coat about his shoulders and a long fur muffler that must have belonged to a fine lady around his neck. With all the fur on his body, other than the broad-brimmed beaver skin hat, he might have been a beast.
He might have been one of the Merciful, and that suited him just fine.
The blessing of the storms was that the snow must surely cover their tracks, so after two days of walking, Chigozie began to feel safe.
They stayed away from the Missouri River, because Chigozie feared the traffic that might travel on it. Instead, they followed its course in the hills above, sticking to the forests and avoiding towns.
Most of the settlements they passed were burned and trampled. They few that weren’t bristled with muskets and the fiercely staring eyes of starving people.
The Merciful sang while they walked and fell asleep promptly once they were still. Chigozie had more difficulty getting to sleep. He thought of the last words he’d heard from the Zoman outrider: I’m a merciful man, but I’m willing to kill.
Chigozie had killed in the name of mercy, cutting short the lives of two women who were being ravaged by Kort and his troop, before they had return to become the Merciful. As he thought back on those pulse-pounding moments now, he was unsure what exactly he had seen in their faces at the last.
Gratitude at the cutting short of their suffering?
Anger, that Chigozie should join their tormentors, rather than rescue the women?
Chigozie Ukwu slept poorly.
On the fifth day, they found a place to stay.
The first sign Chigozie noticed was a reaction among the Merciful. Muzzles that had hung low and drooping shoulders began to raise, and a low murmur of wonder and questioning ran through the line of marchers.
Then he saw steam, rising from what appeared to be the flat ground. “Could that be a cave?” he asked Ferpa, pointing. “Don’t caves stay warmer than the surface in winter, as they are cooler in summer?”
Ferpa’s negative answer sounded like the lowing of a tired cow.
“I smell water,” a hound-headed beastwife said, immediately bounding forward into the snow.
Shortly thereafter, Chigozie found himself shrugging out of his furs and throwing the match coat over one shoulder as he climbed down a crack in the rock into a narrow valley. The valley had stone walls that rose sharply on all sides, as if some cosmic giant had created it by cleaving the range of hills in two with a sword. Several paths led up the cliffs, but for Chigozie they all looked like tricky footing and a strenuous climb.
The beastkind looked unfazed by the roughness of the trails.
Water flowed out of the valley through a crack in the walls barely wider than the stream, and not wide enough to ride two horses abreast or drive a wagon. The water wasn’t frozen because it bubbled up beneath a rock overhang and beside a stone shelf in a hot spring. The spring was the source of the steam, and as he climbed down into the valley, Chigozie noticed over the musky reek of the Merciful and the stink of his own sweat that the water smelled heavily of sulfur.
“We’re grateful for what we have, Lord,” he murmured. “We have nothing of our own merit, and everything of Thy bounty.”
Above the spring and along the stream before the canyon narrowed grew several copses of trees and thickets berry bushes.
Chigozie’s legs burned and his knees wobbled with the effort of the last few steps down. To help keep his balance on the wet stones, he picked up a long, slightly-curved piece of wood and leaned on it like a staff. Crossing the stream to the bench of stone, he threw down his furs and coat and stood above the spring.
The heat from the spring told him that the water bubbling up was quite hot. The sulfur was oddly sweet in his nostrils. He tried to raise his arms to address the Merciful, but he couldn’t get his hands above his shoulders, and he gave up. Instead, he hugged his new walking stick and leaned on it.
He was more tired than he’d realized.
The beastkind who followed him–no, who shared his journey–stood ranged about the canyon. They had energy in their stance and excitement on their faces. Chigozie wanted to say something profound, but could think of nothing. He contented himself with quoting the Bible.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” he said. “I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
“Amen,” the Merciful bellowed.
“These are the still waters,” Kort said gravely. “Here we shall give great mercy.”
“And Chigozie Ukwu shall be our shepherd.”
Chigozie had no strength left to resist. Besides, shepherd was a more modest title than king or priest.
Hadn’t David been a shepherd? Didn’t the kings of Memphis still carry the shepherd’s crook as one of their staffs of office? And wasn’t Christ himself the Good Shepherd?
The title had humility, but also antiquity and meaning.
“Amen.” He bowed his head low. When he raised it again, he saw a hundred glittering eyes fixed on him. “Let us find food. And then let us build.”
As they walked up the path to the front door between snow-shrouded flowerbeds, Nathaniel closed his fingers around the acorn and listened.
He heard the voices of Lenni Lenape pining for their lost land. He heard the soft whispers of the sleeping trees and the heart-wild cry of animals who had died, killed by bullet, arrowhead, or claw. He heard the cheerful songs of hard-working Dutch traders and sailors.
And he heard a voice that sounded familiar: ~Who am I? Where am I? Why do I know nothing?~
“She’s here,” he said. “There’s something wrong.”
“Is she a prisoner?” Jacob asked. “Is she injured?”
“I can’t tell. But she doesn’t know who she is.” Maybe that was why he had been unable to hear her before, when he had listened on the starlit plain.
“Do you know who you are?”
Nathaniel grinned. “I’m your deaf-mute lackey.”
“Lackey a very harsh word. You are my trusted body servant.”
“Does that sound less harsh?”
“It does in Dutch. Remember to keep quiet, and don’t react to sound.” Jacob Hop thumbed through his Tarocks with shaking hands, looking at three cards in quick succession without laying them out.
Standing on the wide porch, Jake knocked. Nathaniel examined the whitewashed boards, the red brick chimneys, the rough-hewn wooden bench and rocking chair sitting on the porch. At Jake’s second knock–Nathaniel remembered to betray no sign that he actually heard the rapping–the door opened.
“Ja, wie gaat daar?”
Jake launched into a fervent conversation in Dutch. He sounded friendly and polite, and he also sounded as if he was begging. Nathaniel reminded himself to pretend not to hear the conversation, which was easy enough, since he couldn’t understand it.
He smiled at the man behind the door and got a bare grunt in return. The man was squat and wide and wore an orange and gray uniform of thinning flannel that had been made for a taller, more slender man–the waistcoat looked stretched around his belly and about to lose buttons, and the sleeves of his jacket rucked up in tight wrinkles at the elbows.
The leafless trees at the foot of the plowed fields looked like skeletal arms. Beyond them, Haarlem puffed thin tendrils of gray smoke into a slate-gray winter sky.
He listed for the voice he thought belonged to his sister. ~I’ll do it, this doesn’t hurt me. Who are these men?~
Suddenly Jake grabbed his elbow and shook him. Nathaniel barely managed to avoid asking, “what?” At the last moment, he remembered to put on an oblivious grin and shake his head.
Jake said something in Dutch and pointed toward a dull red barn squatted at the other end of a field west of the house, just beyond a ditch. He pointed again several times, said something loud in Dutch, and then kicked Nathaniel in the seat of his pants.
Nathaniel stumbled away, turned–
and saw himself.
Not actually himself, of course, but through the open door behind the man in orange and gray, he saw a young woman who might have been Nathaniel, if Nathaniel wore an orange and gray flannel dress and had an enormous pile of thick, curled hair on top of his head. She carried a circular tray that held a coffee pot and white cups, and around her neck hung a medallion that looked like a lump of lead.
She met Nathaniel’s gaze; her eyes were dull and confused.